Algonkian Writer Conferences Interview With Celia Johnson of Grand Central

 Celia Johnson is an associate editor at Grand Central Publishing. She focuses on suspense, mysteries, commercial nonfiction, and even dabbles in high concept horror. Her titles include M.C. Beaton's cozy mysteries, legendary director George Romero's novels inspired by the universe of his classic films, as well as an examination of the "zombie world" by a Harvard professor, and an oral pop culture history of the Mickey Mouse Club, WHY? BECAUSE WE LIKE YOU!  She's currently looking for suspense novels and mysteries that have the potential to crossover successfully into the general fiction marketplace. She's also on the lookout for quirky pop culture titles and narrative nonfiction with high commercial appeal.
AC: Do you see platform becoming more important these days for certain types of fiction. And if so, what kinds?  What do you look for in the way of platform when in the office, or at a conference listening to a writer pitch you their work? And can you give us writers some tips in this area?

CJ: Unfortunately, platform is important for every type of fiction.  It isn’t simply a matter of writing a terrific book (though that doesn’t hurt).  From a publishing perspective, editors have to take platform into consideration because our goal is to sell as many books as possible.  If an author has a strong platform, it means that they have already assembled a group of potential readers.  That said, we also help authors build platforms (by reaching out for blurbs, establishing a presence for them online, etc) if we think a book is truly amazing.  So there is still hope if you don’t have a strong platform just yet.

AC: As you know, we train writers to examine the most vital fictional elements in their novels from the inside out, and quite frequently, if the premise or plot or characters are lacking in some manner, that fact comes through in workshop discussions and presents itself in need of a fix. Though we can't always fix everything, which fictional elements do you like to hear clicking soundly in a pitch communication, those that enable you as an editor make a decision as to whether or not the project has commercial potential?  Can you summarize the elements and tell us which ones are most important to you, and why? 

CJ: I’m always on the lookout for a strong, unique narrative voice and a great premise.  Everything else, in my mind, is malleable.  An editor can help you add depth to your characters by pointing out what elements are missing.  If you have a meandering plot, an editor can help you streamline the story.  But an engaging narrative voice is something that should come directly from the writer.  And I think a unique voice is what sets bestsellers apart from midlist titles—readers gravitate to a fresh narrative perspective.  Similarly, a strong hook helps a book stand out in the crowded fiction marketplace.

AC: Have you found it a valuable or rewarding experience to engage in discussions with writers about their projects?  Do you feel such discussions about characters and plot, etc., help the writers focus on the truly vital issues they need to hash through before they can become published authors? 

CJ: I always find it valuable to speak directly with writers, and I hope they feel the same way.  It’s important for writers to understand who editors are and what they value.  I also think that when a writer is forced to speak about their work, they discover more about what they feel is vital and important.  Every editor is going to have a different opinion about what ingredients are necessary for a great book, so it is important to establish your own set of values too.

AC: It seems axiomatic over time that publishers prefer, if possible, to market novels with great stories and characters, and that it behooves an aspiring author in most genres to attempt, insofar as possible, to create a story that is "high concept", i.e., commercially viable yet not sounding like a tale you've heard a few thousand times, or worse yet, one that everyone knows has failed in the marketplace. Can you discuss this?  How important is a story that sounds unique while also flying a banner of potential commercial success?  Or is "mid" or "low concept" equally acceptable as long as the prose is superb, as one might find in more literary novels? Or does it naturally depend on the genre?

CJ: I don’t think that “high concept” is absolutely necessary.  A great hook does help a book stand out in the fiction marketplace, which is why editors tend to look for high concept material.  That said, great storytelling is also valuable.

AC: How important are a writer's fiction writing credentials in the genres you represent?  Are you more or less likely to ask to see a project if the writer has strong fiction creds? What are your standards?  Do you balance creds against a great story or are both equally important?

CJ: Even though I said that platform is important, I’ll take an excellent manuscript by an author with no platform over a lackluster novel by a big name any day.  I concentrate on mysteries and thrillers at Grand Central, and I’m always on the lookout for authors that we can grow.  In order to really build a debut writer, you need an incredible manuscript, the type of book that you can tell your publicists and sales force that they won’t be able to put it down.  So, while credentials might help me take notice of a writer, I won’t skip over a manuscript just because an author doesn’t have a long list of awards, publications, or degrees.

AC: What other great advice can you give the aspiring authors out there?  What is important to you that we have yet cover?

CJ: Don’t let rejection get you down.  It’s part of the business.  All of the great writers out there were rejected again and again.  To be successful in publishing, you need to believe in your writing and forge ahead.

AC: In general, what do you see as the future of novel-length fiction, both in terms of quality, and in terms of evolution away from paper?  Will bookstores always have a place in American culture? 

CJ: I think novel-length fiction will always have a place in the marketplace and American culture.  That said, the online realm is opening exciting new opportunities for short fiction, and that’s where the next frontier of publishing lies.


Reasons That Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part IV

Whether the source is an article, a friend, spouse, another writer, or panel at a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing once told us, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." We explained that would not happen--not for a first novelist with zero track record (plus the story was uninspiring and loaded to ache with deja-vu). This woman needed pragmatic advice on the subject of ms prep (among other things).  Without it, she was doomed.

Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who shelves the ego and seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed. Tenacity wins.
A few more painful burrs:
  • Don't do flashbacks (imperative to use them artfully, not reject them out of hand!)
  • Don't use italics (tell Faulkner or Joyce--also use artfully, not overdo)
  • Don't worry about the setting of your narrative hook (wrong--if your opening scene is a cliche your ms will die on the first page, e.g., please don't open at a funeral or in a car or plane)
  • Don't switch viewpoints in the same scene (wrong--it can be done, artfully, and as long as the reader understands the rules--read THE BED OF NAILS by Luisa Gomes.
  • Editors are less concerned with the novel premise than they are with the writing itself  (wrong--you can write like a cross between T.S. Eliot and Annie Proulx, but if the premise doesn't sound sufficiently market friendly or high concept, it doesn't make a jot of difference--the concept cajoles the read, then the words take over).  More than ever, editors are focused on the bottom line and the book stores howl for commercial sales!

Read Gail Godwin and Learn to Ruminate

The Ruminations of Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin excels at observing and ruminating on the human condition. Much of the power of her narrative depends on her ability to create interesting characters whom she then dissects. The following excerpts are from her novel, Evensong, the story of Margaret Bonner, the pastor of a church in a small town, and how she interprets and reacts to the characters in her life.

"Would Gus and Charles, as involved in their building and doctoring as Adrian and I were in our school mastering and pastoring, be able to live up to the words better than we were doing? I hoped so. I hoped so for their sakes. I sketched a Celtic cross in the left-hand corner of the card and began shading in the background. What had happened to Adrian and me? In my more pragmatic moods, I tried to settle for the practical explanation: our jobs were making so much of us that we had not time left to make much of each other. But by nature I wasn‘t a pragmatist; I was a digger, a delver into complexities."

"At the bottom of my father‘s Slough of Despond, I now realized, had burbled a dependable tiny wellspring of lugubrious self-love: somehow he had been at ease lolling in his melancholy. Whereas at the bottom of Adrian‘s despondence, I had discovered, lay a flinty bedrock of self-hatred. But if my father had been something of a loller, my husband was a fighter: his whole history testified to this. He‘d work hard and achieve a profession, then heed a call to a fuller use of his potential, bravely pull himself up by the roots, and expand his skills: from Chicago to Zurich, from Zurich to seminary, from seminary to the church, from church to this experimental school in the mountains of western North Carolina. ―A falling short of your totality‖ was how he had defined sin on the day I met him in my father‘s garden, and he was still at work trying to fill out his own totality. But then there‘d be an emotional setback—the death of my father, the death of our unborn daughter, the death of Dr. Sandlin—and, whereas anyone would be plunged into grief, he plunged beyond grief, right back down to that hard, cold floor of self-hate."

"As I laid aside the new sermon note card before I cluttered it with doodles, my gaze was arrested by old Farley‘s moon painting, which hung between the two windows in my study: Every time I looked at it I of course thought of Madelyn and the changes she had wrought on our family simply by walking into our house and being Madelyn Farley and walking out again the next morning with my mother. But the painting itself remained a rich source of contemplation for me. That round white disk riding the night sky between its trail of bright clouds had been created on a dark, freezing porch by an ill-humored old man who in his last years had become fixated on the moon. Why? Because its fast-rising, elliptical variations were so hard to trap in pigment and water? Or were all his moonscapes (conscious or unconscious) an exercise in self-portraiture: obsessive studies of a cold, hard, cratered, dark thing, like himself, that nevertheless had been endowed with the capacity to reflect light and beauty?"


Should Your Characters be Likable?

Touching on this matter of one or more characters turning a reader off, I want to say a few things. You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom.

I worked really hard to make the main character in A Hole in the Earth a 39 year-old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves.

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on.

It is how we prepare as writers.

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:

1.) An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.

2.) An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either.

3.) You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her.You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Rembember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.

4.) Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. I have had people tell me they put a book down or threw it across the room because of what a character did or said in it. This is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear and tell us wonderful things about ourselves, and how beautiful and perfect the world is; we don’t read literature to recognize our own vision of the world. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear.

5.) Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it.

6.) We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an athiest, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who was. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. I hope I don’t have to tell you how small a mind has to be to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are.


Algonkian Writer Conferences: Narrative Enhancement via Nabokov

A snapshot below from the Algonkian Writer Conference Competitive Fiction Guide on the subject of learning the craft of narrative enhancement from a variety of successful authors. This example features Nabokov.

Nabokov’s narrative in Lolita pushes forward largely due to his gift for discerning meaning and detail in everyday life (which is necessary since Humbert H. is a hard character to cheer on) and reporting it with the flair of a phenomenal writer. Basically, however, you can break Nabokov’s categories into observations, ruminations, and fantasy.  Here we see examples as Humbert wanders a department story looking to buy underwear for Lolita:

Narrator observes the behavior and quirks of others: "The painted girl in black who attended to all these poignant needs of mine turned parental scholarship and precise description into commercial euphemisms, such as petite. Another, much older woman in a white dress, with a pancake make-up, seemed to be oddly impressed by my knowledge of junior fashions; perhaps I had a midget for a mistress …"

Fantasy:  "I sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter, from rockledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water."

Reporting bits and bits, things upon things: "Goodness, what crazy purchases were prompted by the poignant predilection Humbert has in those days for check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, soft pleats, snug-fitting bodices … Swimming suits? We have them in all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black."

Ruminations on the ability of objects and organizations to affect human life: "There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool."

Surreal metaphor:  "Lifesize plastic figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fish-like, in a glaucous aquarium."

The type and quality of narrative here is obviously dependent to a large extent on the personality of the narrator continuously engaged in filtering and interpreting the environs. The narrator chooses to focus on things which interest him, comments on behavior he finds odd or objectionable, reveals his fantasies, etc. So what do you as a writer learn from this?  By placing a specific character with well defined traits at an event, or in the presence of something which must be described or experienced, you render that event or object in such a way as to reflect the character’s mindset, biases, emotion, beliefs, and perceptions.

Also, when considering the creation of complex narrative filtered through the mind of a suitable character, you would be well advised to use the Nabokov approach we see above.  In other words, before you begin to write the scene, first sketch the scene and it's parts, then brainstorm each nuance and part by creating a fantasy, an observation, an associative flow of thought, etc.  Keep a journal of these author ruminations and parcel them into the scene as necessary at such time you write the first draft.  Later, this manner of brainstorming a narrator's mind will come naturally to you.

Therefore, choice of character viewpoint when rendering an entire work, or a scene, or a chapter can be critical.  Consider carefully!

It could make the difference between a mediocre novel and a great novel.


Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part III

 Hubris itself will not let you be an artist.

We realize a certain amount of ego is necessary to propel a writer forward, but too much ego is a disaster waiting to happen.  The overly egoistic writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or agents printing out boilerplate replies have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting; and to make the situation even more complicated and susceptible to causing delusion, perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career, so why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing a novel?  See our video post on this blog: SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL.

We once had a successful venture capitalist person hand us their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their novel. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any interesting way; and the first couple of novel pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist (and forever will be--who is going to tell him, IUniverse?). This person presented us the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting corroboration.  Isn't that what he received from everyone else in the universe?

Well, of course, irritation set in when we tactfully pointed out shortcomings. This person also did not believe us when we explained that the vast majority of agents would not, repeat NOT read that 15 page synopsis regardless (and if they did somehow manage to muck through it, the novel ms was DOA regardless).

So You Want to Write a Novel? Comic Video Portrays Writer Ego Mania.

This is funny, but it drives home some points. A must see.

Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part II


Virtually every time you speak with a new writer (especially genre writers) you discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of first novels are currently being published in their genre. Why is this important? Because first novels provide the writer with a concept of what the market is looking for. Also, it helps steer the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way way too deja-vu. Far too many writers make the Dan Brown mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a well published writer, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that a privileged few can get away with horrible crimes and still be published. The writer needs to examine what types of first novels have been published in their genre over the past five years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results.

btw, we're not telling you to chase trends, but you must understand that certain types of story premise and characters, preferred viewpoints and more, change and evolve over time.  For example, the typical gumshoe detective of the past has been replaced by protagonists more exotic and diverse.  Terrorists and 911 stories are dead on arrival, and the thriller market overdosed on Nazis a long time ago, shortly after Allan Folsom's publisher launched THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.  Historical cozy mysteries are more popular while Miss Marple's many clones have sent countless sad writers to shelve their manuscripts and return to their wage slave existence.

Keep in mind too that providing good comparables in your query letter can prove difficult if you are not well read in your genre. Also, if you ever meet with an agent or editor and they question you about your genre, or what you've read lately, you'll fall flat if you don't appear knowledgeable on the subject of what is hot and/or upcoming.


Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part I


In the case of the former, the writing itself does not display the energy, creativity, and polish necessary to convince an agent to go deeper. This is perhaps the number one cause of failure (and obvious on the first page). Usually, the writer is not aware--or at least, not sufficiently aware to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, she or he not realizing that tech or law or medical writing ill prepares one. Also, the writer does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit. Or perhaps an ego obstacle is the issue. Also, we have the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting agents and publishers alike each time they meet it.

In the case of the storytelling/structure issue, the writer may be very accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent or publisher gives it a good read then backs off. Why? Well, the story goes nowhere. It is insufficiently interesting, quiet, or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed us a sample of his ms. His prose skill kept us turning, but finally, we bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.

The Novel Structure Checklist - Issues to Consider When Writing Your Novel

Some basics here for thinking about your novel.  This works for all genres.
  • Is your novel hook the best you can create?  Is your very first line a thud or a grabber?
  • Do you have sufficient story for a whole novel?  Many writers have a story, but not enough for a novel, and they begin to stretch it too thin just to fill up the white space.
  • Are the major plot lines mapped? Do you at least have a general idea of the major source of dramatic tension or complication?
  • Have you sketched out your major scenes or at least have a good idea how many and what type of major scenes you will need to portray the major novel elements and characters?
  • How does theme relate? Do you have a firm theme statement? Is it relevant to the major complication of the story? 
  • Have you used narrative enhancement techniques and devices as necessary and appropriate given the scene, story, and relevant circumstance?
  • Are suspense devices injected as appropriate and necessary, both on a macro and micro scale? (Remember the value of a good topic sentence, something even experienced writers sometimes forget! Ideal for setting suspense tone.)
  • Have you satisfied the "Art of Fiction"? If your wordsmithing is less than Annie Proulx-like, is your content original and dynamic enough to drive the narrative forward, to keep the reader reading? Especially important for genre writers.
  • Are your most important events within the story crafted in fictive present? 
  • Is padding eliminated? Does every character, slice of dialogue, and scene serve a purpose?
  • Is your story original, high-concept for your genre market? If you're not sure, why not?